The end of semester means marking, and this semester I had rather a lot of it: 110 final assignments, and 92 of those were short stories or novel first chapters. And after this gruelling 270,000 odd words of text, my editor's muscle feels ripped (in a Vin Diesel way). So I thought I'd take the analogy and work it hard, too. Stories I wrote early in my writing journey were really easy to spot, as plain as the newbie in the free-weight hall of a Monday night gym. This is often true of the work of many beginning writers (and first drafts of more experienced writers). The buffed up bods at the gym have worked on their physique for years, consciously using appropriate exercises to build the look they want. This also applies to writing. Writing has physique. Prose has muscle, and tone, and shape; it can be both pleasing and powerful. And being conscious of what you're doing is key. Just the same as at the gym, it's much nicer to have some kind of program rather than doing what you hope will work.
And so, I give you a workout in the writer's gym – first set. These exercises (like all gym workouts) aren't representative of real prose, and they're inspired by things I see frequently in early career writers' work and rough work of my own. The key is to become conscious of these habits.
- Bulking up – verbs. Verbs are the powerhouse in writing. Strong ones work hard. Weak verbs evoke weak images, which is why they are sometimes assisted by adverbs, the accessory muscle of prose. This exercise aims to cut you off from some common culprit weak verbs and adverbs.
- Write a scene without using the verbs "look", "watch", "walk", "seem", "saw" and "feel" at all. Use no adverbs. Pay particular attention to the verbs selected and work them hard.
- Cutting up – losing the fat. Writing becomes 'woolly' through many different mechanisms. This exercise focuses on one set of padding words that tend to extend sentences and make writing grope for true meaning.
- Write a scene without using "began to", "started to" or "for a moment".
There's many more exercises that could be done, including sculpting (cutting back to the essentials, so you can see the prose's figure in detail) and posing (shaping the prose through conscious choices of words or themes, and specific details). Stay tuned. For now, I'm applying today's set to a paragraph of mediocre prose as an example. The outcome won't win any awards (and still contains many problems); I just want to illustrate "better" rather than "good" by making minimal changes.
Karen watched Tristan through the window. He began to walk towards their mother, looking as though he had something important to say. It was only a week since the incident in the barn, but it seemed so much longer. Tristan seemed to be keeping his word, but maybe he'd had second thoughts after this morning. He was fickle like that. Karen felt apprehensive. For a moment, she looked around the room desperately, thinking. Should she go downstairs and try to head him off? She touched the glass hesitantly; Tristan was slowing now. Karen felt panicked. She didn't have much time. She ran quickly from the room and down the stairs. But in the foyer, she stopped and looked around again, courage seeming to desert her. Then, she saw the phone on the hall table. Taking her mobile from her pocket, she keyed the house number. The phone seemed to take ages to ring. She waited impatiently for a long moment before she picked it up and put the receiver on the table. Then, she quickly walked out the front door, banging it against the house. Tristan looked around, seeming startled.
"Mum!" she called, even as she watched Tristan with malice. "Phone for you!"
Now, muscling up and cutting up – removing weak verbs and adverbs, and common padding:
Karen tracked Tristan through the window. He stalked towards their mother, as though he had something important to say. It was only a week since the incident in the barn. Tristan had kept quiet, but maybe he'd had second thoughts after this morning. He was fickle like that. Karen's stomach tightened. Her eyes raked the room, searching for inspiration. Should she rush downstairs and head him off? She pressed her fingers to the glass; Tristan was slowing now. Karen panicked. She bolted down the stairs. But in the foyer, courage deserted her. Then, she spied the phone on the hall table. Snatching her mobile from her pocket, she keyed the house number. She paced, heart thudding for the age it took to ring. Suffering through three bells, she pounced on the receiver and threw it down on the table. Then, she burst out the front door, banging it against the house. Tristan whirled, startled.
"Mum!" she called, even as she fixed Tristan with a glare. "Phone for you!"